When it comes to building support for a cause, a picture—or sculpture, installation or photograph—speaks a thousand words

It’s a hot, dry day in Beijing and a queue is forming outside the monolithic National Museum of China, which flanks Tiananmen Square. Today marks the opening of On Sharks and Humanity—a travelling exhibition of artwork that highlights the plight of the ocean’s top predators, which continue to be hunted for their fins.

The drastic decline in shark populations has been widely publicised over the past few years. In line with this growth in awareness, efforts to curb consumption of shark fins have soared. Environmental groups have been campaigning vigorously to educate Chinese consumers about the unsustainability of the trade and pressuring lawmakers to ban the sale of the coveted cartilage.

Laws to reduce its prevalence on the dining scene have also been implemented: in 2013, Mainland China forbade the serving of shark fin soup at government banquets as part of a crackdown on excess. Despite such efforts, these fish continue to be aggressively hunted. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, according to environmental advocacy group WildAid, with fins from up to 73 millions of these used in shark fin soup. The situation remains critical. 

On Sharks and Humanity is the latest attempt to curb the killing of sharks, but it takes an approach very different from previous campaigns. Conceptualised and commissioned by Parkview Arts Action, the charitable arm of the property-focused Parkview Group, the exhibition features more than 50 works by contemporary artists that reflect on the beauty and vulnerability of sharks, the barbarity of their slaughter, and the symbiotic relationship between sharks, other marine life and humans. 

At the exhibition’s core is the concept of “social sculpture,” a term coined by German artist Joseph Beuys for art that serves a social purpose. Beuys, a prolific creator and outspoken member of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus movement in the 1960s, believed art is the most potent “evolutionary-revolutionary power” and should be used to reshape politics and society for the better. On Sharks and Humanity embraces this idea, says Huang Du, the exhibition’s curator. “We are trying to use the transformative power of art to spur change in the community. By engaging the population on an emotional level, we hope to compel the audience to turn apathy into activism,” he says. 

By engaging the population on an emotional level, we hope to compel the audience to turn apathy into activism.

Anti-corruption action by the Chinese government has already cut sales of shark fins, notes Huang, but he hopes this campaign will spark rather more personal—and profound—changes of heart. “This is not about bans or tutelage. It’s about fostering internal realisations.” 

Huang knows the power of art. He was an adviser to the 2012 Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, curator for the Chinese pavilion at the São Paulo Biennale in 2004 and assistant curator for the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. It’s little wonder Parkview’s philanthropic chairman, George Wong, asked Huang to curate On Sharks and Humanity.

Wong wields his own artistic brawn. An aesthete with the largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí outside Spain, the eccentric, grey-haired tycoon has driven Parkview’s patronage of the arts over the years and was instrumental in the founding of Parkview Arts Action. 

The mandate of the organisation is to use art to raise awareness of critical environmental issues and to encourage debate about sustainability in the arts, business and scientific communities, as well as among advocacy groups and the public. After this exhibition, Parkview Arts Action plans to commission works on the subjects of pollution and waste. “People love beautiful things and artists create works of great beauty,” says Wong when asked why he considers art an effective means of activism. “It resonates with people. You can see it, touch it, engage with it. It’s a direct approach.”

People love beautiful things and artists create works of great beauty. It resonates with people. You can see it, touch it, engage with it. It’s a direct approach.

He’s not the only philanthropist pinning his hopes on art. Over the past 12 months, social sculpture has come to the fore in numerous charitable campaigns. In January, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation used art as the centrepiece in a global crusade for immunisation. Called The Art of Saving a Life, the project invited 30 artists to illustrate the crucial role vaccination has played in wiping out fatal diseases. The campaign featured work by photographers Annie Leibovitz, Sebastião Salgado and Alexia Sinclair, and artists Olafur Eliasson and Vik Muniz, to name just a few. 

Muniz, whose work featured extensively in the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land, donated what looks like a red floral print, aptly named Flowers. It is, in fact, a magnified photograph of liver cells inoculated with the smallpox vaccine. 

Sinclair created a stylised period tableau featuring English scientist and smallpox vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner immunising a young boy. An aristocratic woman in the centre of the image represents the indiscriminate nature of the disease, which affected both rich and poor, while the whimsical garden references the Chinese term for smallpox, “heavenly flowers”.  

Intriguing, visually stunning and innately sharable, these images went viral and became the stars in a prolific online campaign to inspire conversations about the value of immunisation. “Images are essential tools in getting people’s attention. But the world is saturated with them, so they have to be unusual, powerful and provocative to get traction,” says Sinclair. “Words are essential, but you can’t have one without the other.”

The ultimate goal of the initiative was to spur donations to Gavi, an organisation that facilitates access to vaccines for children in third-world countries. At Gavi’s annual conference, which took place a few weeks after the launch of the campaign, more than US$7.5 billion was raised to immunise 300 million children—a resounding success. 

The latest form of art-driven advocacy is underway in New York City. Conceptualised by filmmaker Mary Jordan, The Water Tank Project was inspired by a trip she made to Ethiopia. Jordan was horrified by the scarcity of clean drinking water. People would trek up to eight hours to get water, and much of the time it was contaminated. Such was her introduction to an issue that affects one-fifth of the world’s population; about 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity, according to the United Nations. 

Artists speak a language everyone understands in some capacity. It changes consciousness.

When Jordan arrived back in New York, she was determined to make the world aware of the global water crisis. She chose art as her medium—and the thousands of rooftop water tanks around New York as her canvases. She asked artistic luminaries, including Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Weber and Mark Bradford to create works on the subject of water that would be temporarily wrapped around the tanks peppering the city’s skyline. “Artists speak a language everyone understands in some capacity,” says Jordan. “It changes consciousness and it’s a positive way to inspire people.”

Not only does art have an unparalleled power to affect people, it also immortalises a message and prolongs the lifespan of a campaign. Following a grand reception in New York, Jordan will take The Water Tank Project to cities across the Middle East. In addition to its presentation in Beijing, On Sharks and Humanity has been shown in Monaco and Moscow, and Wong hopes to take it to North America, Hong Kong and Singapore. The numerous works created for The Art of Saving a Life are still being discussed and shared a year after the campaign’s launch, and Sinclair’s work is being considered for inclusion in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection. Art, it seems, is breathing new life into philanthropy

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